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Rajat Kapoor's dark past

Rajat Kapoor's reputation as one of Indian cinema's most avant-garde directors is quite warranted. With films like Raghu Romeo, Aankhon Dekhi and X:The Past is Present, he has walked down some radical paths. So, it is not surprising that his debut feature was a dark comedy noir that bordered on the surreal. 

Shriram Iyengar

Drishyam Films' screening event of a film that is almost entering its second decade is quite a celebration in itself. The screening is an attempt by the company to bring several forgotten first films to cinephiles across the country. Their first screening was another forgotten classic, Sriram Raghavan's Raman Raghav. Rajat Kapoor's Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One though raw displays all the signs of technical and literary suavity that has put him at the forefront of the exploding independent cinema scene. A film noir, rather 'blance' as Kapoor puts it,  its story revolves around two adulterous couples consumed by suspicion, intrigue and doubt. This is a film about the 90s. About chases in Fiat Esteems and Ambassador taxis. About rotary dial telephones and cigarette smoke. About Leica cameras and lighters. It is about Bombay, with its lonely empty stretches of road. Of blooming Gulmohars in single apartment housing complexes, and taxis that stopped for passengers.

Kashmira Shah made her debut alongside film school graduates, Kenneth Desai and Aly Khan and Sambhavi Kaul. The only veteran in the film was Naseeruddin Shah. Playing the detective with shades of  noir heroes like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, Naseer displays the cynicism that elevates ordinary scenes. Kashmira Shah is the surprise of the film, playing the femme fatale, whose sociopathic deceit leaves everyone who loves her in a web of suspicion and hate for each other. Her affair with her best friend's husband, Aly Khan, leads his innocent wife to murder. Her own husband already has already had a detective obtain evidence of her infidelity. The murder throws everyone into a tailspin of suspicion against each other. As everyone assumes the other's guilt, they are dragged deeper towards their doom. In the end, the only people who survive the onslaught of suspicion, ironically, are Aly Khan and his murderous wife. In the end, Harish, Kenneth Desai's character, is left holding the colonel's corpse wondering where it all went wrong. Describing the film at the Masterclass, the director said it was born out of the idea that 'everyone lies. It is a film about the truth.' On second thoughts, the film is about the perception of the truth. The innocent housewife, played by Sambhavi Kaul, who commits the murder constantly states her role in the act, only to be regarded as hysteric. Her truth is disregarded for the more glamorous and scandalous perception born out of suspicion. This theme of perception is present in Kapoor's other films like Mithya and Ankhon Dekhi.

Speaking at the Drishyam Films' Masterclass, Rajat Kapoor mentioned that the first film was the most difficult. Working a sparse crew made up of mostly of friends from his FTII days, he managed to shoot the entire film on a budget of Rs 2 lakhs. Two decades later, the cast and crew of the film read like a who's who list of Indian cinema technicians and actors. Reema Kagti, the assistant director of films like Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, and Lakshya was still a novice when she assisted on the film. Irrfan Khan has a sparse role as the young inspector, displaying the swagger that has made him a cult figure. Resul Pookutty, the Oscar winner, has a one-scene role as a tapori on a street. Munish Bhardwaj, the assistant director, is coming out with his own film soon.  Even the director himself had just finished his first film as an actor under Mani Kaul, Khayalgatha. Others like Kenneth Desai, Aly Khan and Kashmira Shah have become names to reckon in television.

Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One is in many ways a film ahead of its time. Its rawness aside, the film highlights some of Rajat Kapoor's key skills. A student of master surrealists Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, and an admirer of Federico Fellini, his love for the abstract is evident. The verse poetry dialogues, written by the unique Kamal Swaroop, add to the sense of surrealism in the film. What it does not do is dissipate the excitement and enthusiasm of the director and his crew. The excitement of a new breed of film enthusiasts looking for a different way to tell their story.